The 2017 USU Election concluded overnight, with the relatively low voter turnout almost overshadowing stunning victories to two International Student candidates; the relatively unknown Hengjie Sun and the previously-excluded Zhixian Wang.
Sun and Wang will join Moderate Liberal Jacob Masina, Labor Right’s Claudia Gulbransen-Diaz, independent Debating figure Liliana Tai, and Adam Torres from Labor Left (NLS). They will now serve a two-year term on the USU’s Board of Directors.
This meant Labor Left’s Caitlin McMenamin (SLS), MAGA hat enthusiast Erika Salmon, another relatively unknown International Student Sally Yang, and Revue personality Alexander Shu were all unsuccessful. Shu placed 7th, meaning that any resignation from Board in the next 12 months will see him take their place.
Throughout the three days of polling, live blogs from Honi Soit and PULP Media indicated that there were less campaigners, campaigning, and votes being cast than normal - resulting in the lowest voter turnout since voting incentives began in 2009 and a boring spectacle for the rest of us. Only 3454 votes were cast, despite two consecutive years of huge International Student turnout mostly via WeChat campaigning. The incentive to vote this year was a $1 donation to charity; in the past, the USU has opted for drink vouchers and sausage sizzles.
However, the main story of the night was the election of two International Students that were mostly off the radar in the first week of campaigning. Hengjie Sun has had little experience in the USU compared to others in the race, with his Board resume indicating he has not even held a Club Executive position. Undeterred, he campaigned almost exclusively on WeChat, with a minimal physical presence only on voting days. Very few people guessed he would have the support to be elected, let alone break quota and come first.
Sun joins Masina as the first Liberal students elected to Board since 2011 - neither ran on a platform that announced their political ideology.
Even fewer people would have guessed Zhixian Wang would be elected overnight, as she was sensationally excluded from the race just two days into the physical campaigning period. The Returning Officer’s ruling that Wang's campaign used WeChat messages and chalk art that constituted bribery was overturned the night before polling opened, leaving Wang roughly twelve hours to organise a campaign without any preference deals. No one can ever again say that you need boots on the ground campaigning for weeks to run a strong campaign.
The numbers themselves paint an interesting picture of an election becoming increasingly influenced by International Students and WeChat campaigning. Preference deals between candidates saw three trios emerge - Sun, Masina, and Salmon had a loose deal, Tai, Shu, and Torres all had each other on their how to votes, while Gulbransen-Diaz, McMenamin and Yang did the same. Sun’s excess votes over quota gave Masina the little boost he needed while doing very little for Salmon; however, the other two preference deals bore some fruit. Gulbransen-Diaz was placed fifth after primary votes were tallied, but jumped ahead of Tai and Torres when she received 67 and 56 votes from the exclusions of McMenamin and Yang respectively. Similarly, Tai and Torres benefited from Shu’s exclusion, but at that stage would have been elected regardless.
The more interesting preference flows came from when International Student candidates were excluded. Sun’s over quota did mostly go to Masina, but that only accounts for 62 votes, roughly half - the other half scattered but mostly favoured Sally Yang (~26) and Zhixian Wang (~32). Yang’s exclusion benefited Wang almost as much as it did Gulbransen-Diaz, despite a preference deal between Yang and Gulbransen-Diaz, while Shu also picked up a decent amount of votes. Shu’s exclusion also benefited Wang more than Torres, again defying the deal made between Shu and Torres.
What does all that mean? It means WeChat (and probably word-of-mouth) campaigning for International Students seems to work at not only promoting candidates without much of a ground presence, but also cross-promotes other candidates enough to have a decent amount of voters ignore the How-To-Vote of their candidate and just preference other International Student candidates. Factions would probably do well to remember this when setting up preference deals with International Student candidates in the future.
This brings us back to low voter turnout; without International Students, it’s feasible that this election could have had over a thousand less voters. The declining voter turnout over the past several years would have been far worse without Koko in 2016 and four International Student focussed candidates this year. This should be a wake up call to those that rely on campaigning on the ground, such as political factions.
With USU Elections out of the way, eyes will now turn to the SRC and Honi Soit races in Semester Two. With two Liberals winning USU Board spots for the first time in half a decade, they might just have a crack at the SRC they have not controlled in thirty years.